I have been a terrible sleeper since I was a baby. (And my dad never lets me forget it.) I should say I was a terrible sleeper, until a few years ago when I learned to sleep well.
The standard sleep hygene tips? They all help, but I resisted trying them for many years. It was a combination of pride and my work-first priorities that held me back. In fact, ever since college if I had a deadline to make, I couldn’t sleep. I was so alert that I could use the time to study. It was my secret weapon.
Unfortunately, as I got older, the sleeplessness remained but I was no longer awake enough to function.
As with many of the changes in my life, I got serious about sleeping after I realigned my values to make people and not work the most important thing in my life. The most important people first value is my own health. But how could health be the top priority if I was working till 11 at night, and getting up at 5 to work some more?
Eleven things I have learned to help me sleep.
- Ambien helps, but wasn’t effective if I was working right up until the second I took it. Sleep was fitful, and I was prone to waking up after a few hours because my body never had time to unwind. Therefore I instituted some firm rules and boundaries.
- Lights out at 11, every night including weekends.
- Work stops at 9, to give me time to unwind.
- The computer, tablet, and phone are shut off at 9. These are stimulating, and too work-like. I can’t help but think about work if the computer is open. The temptation to look at email is too great, and I can easily get sucked into things.
- Lights for the kids go out at 9. My wife and I need time to be together without the kids.
- I look for ways to enjoy the time between 9 and 11. Ok, in my life some of the time is spent cleaning the kitchen and scooping cat litter, but usually by 9:30 we’re ready to move on to another activity. It is important that this time isn’t all chores – the object is to find some enjoyment to help you relax before bed. Reading, tv, movies, sex, exercise, and music are all good options.
- No work until 6 AM. Stress can make me wake up, and if I work it re-enforces the habit of waking up. If I know I can’t work no matter what, it is easier for me to get back to sleep. If necessary, I’ll jot down a few notes to clear my head, knowing I won’t forget the supposedly important thing rambling around in my head.
- The bedroom a sacred space: No working, no devices. Sleep, sex, relaxing only! Yes, this means you should stop reading email on your Droid before getting out of bed. Seriously. If this is a habit, put a shoe box outside your bedroom, and drop the phone in before you enter. If you really need to check something, walk out into the hall.
- If I wake up at 3 AM and am hungry, I have a cup of ginger tea. It settles my stomach without giving me a sugar fix. The sugar fix rewards waking up. I try to keep it boring.
- I have a comfort ritual to help me get back to sleep. If it is 3 or 4, I go downstairs and sleep in the lazy boy in the living room. I put on my favorite original Star Trek episode (The Doomsday Machine), cover myself with my favorite throw, turn out the lights, put on an old pair of sunglasses (to cut down on glare from the tv), close my eyes, and just listen. I am comforted by the familiarity, and am usually asleep within ten minutes. And I know the episode so well I can always tell if I have fallen asleep, because suddenly the chronicle will jump to something 30 minutes later. This totally cuts off the frustration of feeling like you haven’t slept, because I know that I was asleep. This helps me get right back to sleep.
- The thing that put me over the top was a guided meditation CD called “Just Relax.” It changed my life. Just Relax describes itself as “dull, boring, and effective.” It delivers big time. I tried it in desperation one night at 5 AM after a week of sleepless nights. . It was a weekend and I slept on the couch till 9:30. The kids were up, around, and I’m told very noisy. I slept through it all, and felt more refreshed than I ever had. I used Just Relax pretty regularly for a while, and now I can play the sounds in my head to help me go to sleep.
Pretty standard sleep hygene on the list. I thought these things were so hokey that I wouldn’t even look at them until a few years ago. The hokey feeling? A rationalization to prevent me from trying something to help myself. Maybe I was too proud. Whatever the case, I’m glad I got over it.
What is your experience with sleep? Are you a natural sleeper? If not, what has worked for you?